Mushrooms are some of nature’s most fascinating organisms. As a fungus, they are considered to be more closely related to animals than plants. Most of the fungus lies hidden in the ground or in decaying plant matter until a mushroom, the fruiting body of the fungus, explodes forth, often springing up almost overnight.
Of all the members of this unusual group, few are weirder-looking than the lion’s mane mushroom (Hericium erinaceus). Unsurprisingly, it looks like a lion’s mane but it’s also described as looking like a brain. This is appropriate since it offers a wide array of amazing brain-related health benefits.
What Is Lion’s Mane Mushroom?
Lion’s mane is an edible mushroom native to parts of Asia, North America, and Europe. Instead of having the typical mushroom stem and cap, it appears as a white cascade of teeth that looks like it could be made of ice or minerals. It goes by many descriptive common names. In China it’s called “money head mushroom.” In Japan it’s called “yamabushitake” which means “mountain hidden mushroom.” In Western countries it also goes by sheep’s head, bear’s head, bearded tooth mushroom, bearded hedgehog mushroom, or pom pom blanc.
Lion’s mane mushroom has been used as both a medicinal and a culinary mushroom for thousands of years. In traditional Chinese medicine it was used to promote strength and vigor and to treat digestive disorders.
It’s often used in Chinese cooking as a meat replacement. Its taste has been compared to scallops or lobster, which makes it an excellent seafood replacement for vegetarians or those allergic to shellfish. And like seafood, lion’s mane is a good source of protein and a viable vegetarian source of vitamin B12. Vitamin B12 is essential for a healthy brain and nervous system that’s often lacking in vegetarian diets.
Lion’s Mane: The First Smart Mushroom
Now that researchers are taking a look at lion’s mane, they are finding even more ways to use this mushroom medicinally. So far it’s been discovered to possess antioxidant, antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties. It’s protective of the digestive tract and it can be used to treat gastric ulcers. It supports the immune system against certain types of cancers. It is a promising immunomodulator — a substance that stimulates or suppresses inflammation to normalize the immune response.
But where lion’s mane really excels is at improving brain function and treating neurological disorders. Lion’s mane can help with a variety of mental health problems including anxiety, depression, Alzheimer’s disease, and Parkinson’s disease.
Lion’s mane contains two groups of compounds — the hericenones and the erinacines — which work together to stimulate synthesis of a protein called nerve growth factor (NGF). Nerve growth factor encourages the growth of new nerve cells and safeguards existing ones. It protects nerves in the brain and body from age-related degeneration. According to Dr. Ward Bond, author of The Power of the Lion’s Mane Mushroom, hericenones are the first active substances found in nature to induce NGF synthesis.
Research done in Japan confirms that hericenones and erinacines stimulate nerve regeneration and one Japanese company has been awarded a patent for a proprietary extract of lion’s mane. It’s sold as Amyloban 3399, a dietary supplement containing Amycenone as the active ingredient. It’s been widely used for dementia, sleep disorders, and schizophrenia. Studies have confirmed that Amycenone increases the production of NGF and prevents nerve cell death by the toxic amyloid-beta peptide, which is linked to Alzheimer’s.
When lion’s mane was given to seniors with mild cognitive impairment, which is often considered a stepping stone to dementia, they experienced significant cognitive improvements with no reported side effects. When post-menopausal women were given lion’s mane, they experienced less anxiety, irritability, and depression, and an increased ability to concentrate.
When memory-impaired mice were given dried lion’s mane mushrooms, they performed significantly better in maze tests while also showing an increase in curiosity in their environment. According to world-renowned fungi expert Paul Stamets, “The reduction of beta amyloid plaques in the brains of mushroom-fed mice vs. the mice not fed any mushrooms was remarkable. The formation of amyloid plaques is what many researchers believe is a primary morphological biomarker associated with Alzheimer’s. Plaques linked to beta amyloid peptide inflame brain tissue, interfere with healthy neuron transmission, and are indicated in nerve degeneration.”
Where To Find Lion’s Mane Mushroom
If you live in a region where lion’s mane mushrooms grow, you might be lucky enough to find your own. Whenever you go mushroom foraging you should be aware of “lookalikes” — poisonous mushrooms that look very similar to the non-toxic mushroom you are seeking. While there are other Hericium species, they are all edible, so fortunately there are no poisonous mushrooms that are likely to be mistaken for lion’s mane.
Lion’s mane is sold in some Asian grocery stores either fresh or dried. For a fun horticultural experiment you can even grow your own. There are lion’s mane mushroom kits available online. If you decide to try this, don’t expect instant gratification. According to 100th Monkey Mushroom Farm, it can take six months to a year for your first harvest, but once your mushrooms are established you’ll be rewarded with mushrooms for years to come.
This short video features mycologist Paul Stamets in an other-worldly greenhouse full of lion’s mane mushrooms. Over the past 40 years, he has discovered several species of mushrooms and pioneered countless mushroom cultivation techniques. In an interview with Huffington Post, he calls lion’s mane mushroom “nature’s nutrient for your neurons” and “the first smart mushroom.”
He says it takes some trial and error to learn how to cook it right to bring out the best flavors. He recommends caramelizing in olive oil, deglazing with saké, and adding butter to taste. Sounds good to me! If you can’t find fresh lion’s mane, you can still reap the benefits with lion’s mane capsules, liquid extract, tea bags, or powder.
NOTE: Do not consume any wild mushroom until you’ve identified it with 100 percent certainty. You can get identification help from one of North American Mycological Association’s local chapters on their website Namyco.org.